A “high” number of Uyghurs, including youngsters seized by security forces following ethnic unrest in China’s Xinjiang region, may have become victims of forced organ harvesting, according to an independent researcher.
Ethan Gutmann said that the forced disappearance of hundreds of Uyghur men and boys following the 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi “should be of great concern to the world no matter what else may be occurring.”
“But I suspect it goes further than that,” Gutmann, an expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told RFA’s Uyghur Service when asked about the possibility that many ordinary Uyghurs, apart from political prisoners, would have been victims of forced organ harvesting.
“I’ll just say this: I think what has happened to the Uyghur community inside China since 2009 is a great mystery. And I have some ideas, some clues that suggest some very disturbing possibilities, but I am not willing to make any definitive statement until I have proof in hand.”
The Munich-based Uyghur World Uyghur Congress (WUC), an exile group, last year called on China to account for the thousands of Uyghurs believed to have disappeared in custody after deadly violence following long-simmering tensions between Han Chinese and Uyghurs.
“Many Uyghurs have attempted to uncover the whereabouts, condition, and fate of their forcibly disappeared loved ones, but continually find their requests for information being rejected or ignored,” said WUC president Rebiya Kadeer.
China has been extracting organs from living prisoners in addition to its much publicized and criticized practice of taking vital body parts from executed convicts, Gutmann told a U.S. congressional hearing in September last year.
A new issue
Most victims are said to be practitioners of China’s banned Falun Gong spiritual group, but Gutmann told the hearing he believes that the practice of taking organs from prisoners began in the remote Xinjiang region—where ethnic Uyghurs say they are discriminated against by Han Chinese—in the 1990s and had expanded nationwide by 2001.
When asked by RFA to compare the plight of Uyghur organ-harvesting victims to those of the Falun Gong group, Gutmann said that though it is “indisputable” that the vast majority of victims have been members of the spiritual group, Falun Gong media outlets have begun listing Uyghurs as victims as well.
“That’s a real shift for Falun Gong practitioners, who start from a base of being unavoidably influenced by mainland cultural norms and prejudices.”
“Personally I estimate 65,000 of them [Falun Gong members] went under the knife—and there’s nothing surprising about those numbers as Falun Gong comprised fully 70 million people at its height in 1999,” he said.
“How many Uyghurs were harvested? Hard to answer, and although it may be high in a per-capita sense, it will always be much smaller than Falun Gong in absolute numbers.”
Also, he said research on forced organ-harvesting among Uyghurs is a relatively new issue.
“Keep in mind too that it’s a relatively new issue. Researchers have been looking into Falun Gong harvesting since 2006; I only came out with “The Xinjiang Procedure” a year ago,” he said, referring to a report he has published on the systematic live harvesting of organs by the Chinese regime.
Gutmann said he was aware of Chinese nuclear tests in Xinjiang during the 1960s and of allegations of birth defects and unusual cancers among the Uyghur population and “couldn’t help but wonder if the region was being used as a testing ground again, this time, for live organ harvesting.”
In conducting his own research on organ harvesting in China, “Uyghur organizations and individuals were extraordinarily helpful,” Gutmann said.
“[I also tried to] cut down on possible contact with spies. You know, espionage is just a fact of life for any organized force which is going up against the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party.”
Gutmann noted that the U.S. government has so far taken a “passive role” in the controversy.
“[But] if you accept that organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience has taken place, if you accept the existence of this mini-genocide, then, as the world’s superpower, you are honor-bound to do something about it,” Gutmann said.
“And the U.S. feels that conflict with China at a time when the economy is so shaky is an unaffordable luxury.”
Simple and practical steps can still be taken, though, Gutmann said, suggesting that efforts be made to “criminalize the ‘organ tourism’ procedure in China” and forbid American companies from conducting “clinical tests of transplant patients on [China’s] mainland.”
U.S. medical schools should also refuse to train surgeons from China, “unless they can verify they are not going to conduct forced organ harvesting,” Gutmann said.
“The U.S. government opposes illegal or unethical harvesting of, or trafficking in, human organs,” the State Department said in a Dec. 19 reply to a congressional letter asking for information on transplant abuses in China.
"The U.S. government has urged China to cease the practice of organ harvesting from executed prisoners," the State Department said.
"There are indications that Chinese authorities are rethinking their policies and revising their practices ... [but] we will continue to make known our concerns and urge China to take steps to stop such abuses.”
Interviewed last year in the World Health Organization's Bulletin, Wang Haibo, an organ transplant expert for China's Ministry of Health, acknowledged ethical problems with the use of organs taken from executed prisoners and called the system unsustainable.
"The implementation of [a] new national system will start early next year  at the latest," Wang said.
But though civil hospitals in China may perform transplant surgery, the harvesting of organs itself is done by China's military and police, said Torsten Trey, executive director of the Washington-based Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting.
"The military hospitals operate on their own decisions, and don't have to follow orders from the civil side, including the Ministry of Health," Trey said.
"Once an organ is procured and offered for transplantation to civil hospitals, it is almost impossible to track down the organ source on the military side."
Reported by Rukiye Turdush for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.